There is a continent of ground covered in Rising, Falling, Hovering by C.D. Wright. Maybe there’s more than one continent. Certainly the book touches down in Iraq, the U.S. and Mexico. By my count that’s three (if you give Central America the nod to stand on its own). It is a book that ranges widely in its concerns and therefore is very hard to pin down; however, risking an attempt to solidify the assemblage of items in the book into a single theme, I will suggest that the book’s main concern is documenting (and therefore depicting) the existential dread of human violence in the world. It’s not concerned with just the obvious military motif here, but also with the violence done to each other in domestic disputes and squabbles, a kind of military front that most readers can identify in their life as opposed to the more abstract battle lines drawn in the US invasion of Iraq.
Wright does not just limit herself to looking at all the known violence in the world and the resulting victimhood, she also comments on all the anticipated violence that may or may not come, the psychic energy that is expended worrying about loved ones who may be in harm’s way. This is exemplified towards the latter half of the book in the speaker’s concern about a son that is traveling through Mexico (losing his wallet and stopping in towns where the speaker has some memory of an altercation, etc.).
The book also engages in many sequences that seem like travelogue. The details noticed are meticulous and interesting. Wright sees with an anthropologist’s eye in many of these sequences, which often depict village and small town life in Mexico in ways that are perfectly ordinary and strange à la Frank Stanford. They unearth a strange beauty in the quotidian that makes it seem miraculous. However, it is not always easy to see how these accumulated details of, say, Zapoteca towns relate to the above prescribed theme of existential dread associated with human violence. Perhaps one might associate the town life depictions with a kind of economic violence that has made them the victims of poverty. This is how I read these sections operating the first time through the book, but as I read through it the second time, I found that a lot of the depictions of town life to be lovingly rendered, not as stock examples of the wretchedness of poverty. The most lively parts of the book are the details that come from the behavior found in the towns from the comment that “to express happiness and expel scorpions is the best job on earth” to the demonstration against the Iraq war with flowers in the zocalo.
The book is divided into three main sections. Three poems comprise the first section with the first of two poems entitled “Like Having a Light at Your Back You Can’t See but You Can Still Feel.” The second main section then is titled Rising, Falling Hovering and it includes the long title piece and the first of two versions of “Like a Prisoner of Soft Words”. The final section is titled Rising, Falling, Hovering, Cont.. Though there are discrete poems within these three sections, mostly the book feels like a book-length poem because the stylistic approach doesn’t vary all that much between the various poems (though often Wright focuses on different subject matter, especially in the later poems like “Or: Animism” and “Like Something Christenberry Pictured”). However despite this “existential drift” at the end, the book holds together as a piece constructed of parts.
Two pages of this book-length poem pay homage to Forrest Gander’s and Douglas Culhane’s ligatures (pp. 22 and 30) in that they provide small details that stand alone as couplets which the reader is able to link and push together to convey a sense of total lived life. In this way, the whole IS the sum of its parts. Maybe even more precisely, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. For that matter, the entire book could be read in this manner as well. All of the details and the scenes and the thoughts running through the speaker’s head that visit through the eyes) compel the reader to arrange them in such a way as to suggest a total lived life. Yet Wright acknowledges the partial aspect of her presentation in the brief section on page 67 which could nearly serve as an ars poetica for this book:
As the earth heats up
People are moving north
Fragmentary partial contradictory
Unconstrained by facts
Phrases cycling through us routine as prison meals
People’s lives are put in motion. The fragments of their lives stand by themselves as partial tribute to the totality of their lives. The imagination impacts real events and the language that issues forth is always there a companion like a dog’s favorite chew toy.
But the most important insight into the main project of this book is Wright’s ending line for one section in “Rising, Falling, Hovering” (the poem) that comes on page 28:
The first task is to recover the true words for being
Relatively early in the book this line appears, and it served as the explanation for how the book was realized and constructed. The first task and the organizing principle is to get the language about existence right, to recover it, in fact, which makes it sound like it has been lost. Perhaps it is lost in the moment of being? Perhaps it is lost in the lacunae of texts related to capturing being? Whatever the case, this statement makes it sound like Wright’s project for the book is one that requires effort and attention. It does on the reader’s part, and a healthy amount of rubber cement to keep the various moving parts from flying out between the covers of the book.
Because being is the concept being resurrected here (and because the epigraph by Merleau-Ponty makes reference to this — “The momentum of existence towards others, towards the future, towards the world can be restored as a river unfreezes”), Wright seems to me to be examining human existence. While that main component that she is examining may be “fear” as some other reviewers have pointed out, the main concern of the book as my eyes pored over it was the question of how intricately woven violence is within the human condition. We are more chimpanzee than bonobo. The speaker almost hints at this possibility when on page 30 there is a recollection of reading to the boy:
Recollect reading to her boy
reading to him in bed overcome herself
with sleep as if drugged or slugged the jabbed up again
Come on Keep reading Don’t stop Don’t ever stop
like she as saying Beauty cannot she cannot marry
the Beast and tonight as on all those other rose-scented evens
He stumbles the Beast he stumbles from Beauty’s empty chamber
In agony he goes in agony the fur of his fingers
smoking until it’s her boy he is the one saying
escaliing Yes Yes he will marry the Beast
until he is the one who conks out
The speaker is the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast,” but the speaker is letting us know this boy is already identifying with the beast, ready to take on a legal relationship with the Beast (which probably would only be acknowledged in San Francisco). This moment hints at that kernel of the savage within even the most naïve and delicate of human psyches. The boy later becomes one of the central points of focus in the book when he begins his travels through Mexico in such a manner as the speaker is always taking care to worry about him. The speaker notes, “Esta comiendo mi coco” (making me worry — literally, “eating my head”). This innocent child, once pitying the Beast is, at that point, on the road to potential ruin. Wright chooses to juxtapose this speaker’s child to all of the kids killed in the US invasion of Iraq (on both sides, though only American kids are noted in the government reports, Wright notes). The speaker becomes so incensed with the peril that has befallen the “Forever Young” (euphemism for those who died in battle) that the speaker acknowledges that rage may be my (the speaker’s) issue:
And so I have come to want them —
wuth their generic words tapped out of their well-drilled heads;
for the blunted bodies of this couple to be riveted to this dread,
for their blunted minds to stick on this expectation as if driven into
their bones of the natural order upended — that their twins are dead. No,
that their twins are blessed to give of themselves so selflessly in this struggle
for our way of life as it is so correctly, so vulgarly called; though I do not want
them to actually receive this news to actually have the twins be dead;
nor for their eyes to be blacked out, nor their earthly functions
be stopped, nor their blood to quit flowing to their temporal lobes,
but I sincerely do want this couple this very couple, the current occupants,
to exist solely, wholly in this dread. Because we do.
[Gee, mom, didn’t realize you were full of the old piss and vinegar.]
Well, this is quite a bit more strident than anything else in the book, but it underscored for me when I was reading it how the threat of violence is more punishing than the event itself is. It’s something too that in the “dread” (which made me think of Kierkegaard) that is invoked how inextricably linked it is to the human condition. Can anyone of us imagine a world that isn’t potentially harmful around the next bend (or made harmful by another’s rash thinking)? That constant ticking of danger is unnerving. One always needs to be cautious, on guard. Imagine if only a wild animal could unleash language from its sensory experience what it might have to say about such a subject. The threat of its head really being eaten would be pervasive, crippling. Perhaps Wright is commenting on how this fear of violence/death is almost a degenerate quality in humans. That evolutionary aberration which makes our species able to contemplate its own violent demise (which I perhaps wrongfully assume is not present in many other species) makes us susceptible to lock down, to being caught in a prison of others’ intentions, always guessing what malice may lurk within the next guy. Even the most calculating chimp might take pity on us.
The preoccupation with the son’s well-being, the domestic squabbles (and attendant list of the speaker’s qualms), the description of village life in Mexican towns and commentary on the US invasion of Iraq are the main components of the book, but they are not the only ones. There is also mention of a friend who is visiting Mexico for some experimental chemotherapy treatment. Reference to this friend comes up between the treatment of the life of the villagers and the son’s wayfaring adventures. But here too though the agent of violence is not another person, the friend in question is also subject to the ravages of nature. Nature is the aggressor here. Perhaps more accurately, one could describe the existential moment I have alluded to above not as the pervasive dread of violence but the pervasive fear of victimhood. In any case, the friend’s circumstances are not mentioned after she turns up in Mexico, so the friend is probably more of a device that a central focus in the book. The friend is shuffled off to wait in the wings. Remember: we are told that this depiction is only a partial one.
However, the book certainly makes gestures to be more expansive than that, literally touching down as it does in on three continents. It’s apparent to me that it’s more of a totality than it lets on disguising itself as a partial treatment of a life. Of course, no book is equal to existence. We have video games for that. [Note: the video game corresponding to Wright’s book will be out next year, and the object of the game will be to reconstruct meaning in a life via an assortment of textual and sensory stimuli. A game for the cognoscenti finally, yes.] However, if I am permitted to continue perpetuating the violence I have inflicted on this text by daring it to cohere to a theme of dread of violence, then I wonder where are all the quotidian bits about the violence of relative poverty and the leverage that money places on people who don’t have it exists. This may have been outside the purview of the poem-book, but it certainly seems applicable to the many lives in America that I know, and it would be relevant to the project of recovering the true words for being. The way that money leans on people to do what they ordinarily wouldn’t is a form of violence, an entry into victimhood. Of course, it is considered crass to make mention of such matters in a work that purports to be about what is consequential and therefore meaningful and true in a life. This is the humanities, damn it. Lives are borne by passion and interest, not by simple practical concerns.
Again I am struggling to make something of the depiction of Mexican village life in this book. The details are interesting enough, and I read them for their value as reportage, but I have a hard time reconciling why these depictions are in this book and why there are so many of them. Perhaps these depictions are illustrating the notion I mentioned above about the violence of relative poverty. However, I never got a sense of pity on the speaker’s part from them, except on certain occasions when the inhabitants of the village seem poised to take on some Chiapas-like political violence. Vague threats of danger hang in the air. On the contrary, there seems to be a celebration of this life in its vivid human dimension. The primary exception to this is the description of the border crossing where again the fear of victimhood can be seen:
Animals or men passing through the night
al otro lado
Without documents, blankets, contacts,
without water, without with
Freeze, dehydrate, burn
A knot of unmoving human forms
waiting for a bell to quicken them
from pueblo without medicine maize or milk
from colonia of cardboard without fuel or flour
Mira: you will never see faces like this again
These are the ones who loved you thes the ones who hurt
Chihuahuan sun sizzles its blackened trim
Now moving at the speed of laudanum
Treading sand and dust under the big dry socket of god
Discarding the shawl the straw hat that protected nada
Desert floor entering memory hole
Ants beginning their business from the inside
The drag road unavoidable
Every footfall a giveaway unless
One could vault out of the broken saddle
al otro lado Farm Road 170
The analogy made to ants is particularly apt and marks the vulnerability and the persistence of those who cross to El Norte. This section ends with: ” Like they say in Iraq Now fear up harsh”. I’m still not entirely sure what this means in its most specific sense, but I have a pretty good idea about what this phrase implies. So the circle is squared. The triangulation between the US, Iraq and Mexico is established. The association is not always at right angles, but then poetry is supposed to move in a crab-wise fashion. The bridges and connections are ones that are continually crossed and re-crossed so that the book begins to cohere if at first it seems maddeningly in disarray.
Though the book is primarily concerned with fear and worry, this is not to say that it doesn’t have its moments of genuine humor. My favorite of these moments is on page 72:
They read. And go to bed early. He puts on an eyemask.
She wants a light on. She wants to read.
No, he says. Turn it off.
Let me finish the chapter.
Turn it off, C.
The page then, she says. You have your mask on.
I can feel it, he says. I can feel it
streaming in my ear. Besides,
he is adamant,
you just go to sleep at night
I go on a journey.
If I weren’t the one who always stays up late, I’d use that one myself.
There are other interesting inclusions throughout the book here as well. The two sets of poems with identical titles appear to be identical until one reads well into the poem. Then the two versions diverge. One is struck that one version may be a revision, that there is something to recovering the true words of being in the inclusion f one’s revisions. Restatement is one avenue to this recovery. It allows for emergence out of another ant hole into another world.
Rising, Falling, Hovering was described to me before I read it as a dense book, nearly impenetrable with all of its fragments and sudden dislocations and retracings. It is a journey through a mind and its being, a dense mind. That is for sure. While I should find this a bit daunting, I can’t say that I was all that intimidated by how it stretched me as a reader. In fact, I was more delighted and ultimately gratified when the various parts started coming together during the second reading. There are other perspectives that could be latched onto in reading this book. There is political statement. There is emotional depth. For me, the book read as a postmodern existential primer. How to be in the world and pay attention to it. How one can be restored the way a river unfreezes.